“They said unto him, Rabbi…Where thou dwelleth? He said unto them, ‘Come and see’” (John 1:38-39).
A. W. Tozer has famously said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us…we tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God.” As a pastor, one question I find people asking about God, and often carrying around misguided mental images regarding, is: Where is God?
Awhile back I received an email from a distressed person in my church saying: “I’m looking for God, but it seems like he is no where to be found. If God is my protector, then where is He when I need Him?”
Or, again, during our bedtime routine my 5-year old once asked, “Daddy, if Jesus lives in Heaven, and he’s going to bring us there when we die, then why did he put us on Earth?” My inquisitive son apparently views our earthly existence as a “time out” by our Heavenly Father—being sent to our room (earth) until we have “learned our lesson,” and only then will we be “let out” to enjoy the heavenly toy room in the presence of the Father.
Both my church member in distress and inquisitive son are asking the same question put to Jesus at the beginning of John’s Gospel: Where thou dwelleth (1:38 KJV)?
The vibrancy of one’s faith is significantly shaped by one’s conception of where God dwells in relationship to us. For quite some time now, Christian teaching has tended to focus more on Christ’s saving work for us than on Christ’s ongoing presence with us. Back to Tozer: Do we have a mental image of God who, like an absentee workaholic husband, is so busy working to provide for his bride, that he never seems to be around to just be with her? Churches are full of believers who know intellectually what God has done for them, but show little evidence of a deep, abiding experience of his presence with them.
John’s Gospel reveals a Jesus who understands himself to be not only the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world but also the unique place where God’s tabernacling presence is to be found, the very threshold where Heaven and Earth meet in a loving embrace. John gives us a theology of God’s presence to guide us from our moment of baptism into greater spiritual maturity, just as the pillar of fire and cloud, and the portable Tabernacle, guided Israel from their moment of rescue from Egypt through the sea and into the Promised Land. Let’s take a closer look.
In John 1:38-39 we learn that we’ll only come to understand ‘Where Jesus dwells’ if we’ll keep company with him in and “come and see.” John’s prologue reveals that God dwells from eternity past in the dynamic fellowship of the Trinity (sometimes called a perichoretic dance). Jesus took on flesh and “moved into the neighborhood” in order to invite others into the Dance.
Then Jesus’ use of Gen 28 (Jacob’s ladder) in 1:47-51 reveals his very Jewish conception of heaven as God’s presence dwelling just beyond the veil, and Jesus himself as the new “thin place” where heaven and earth touch. God’s presence dwells in a heaven just beyond the veil, and there is constant invisible traffic and activity between the two realms.
In John 4, Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman shows how God’s presence bursts all barriers, it cannot be confined to a particular mountain or sacred place, and is available to all who approach in the Spirit and in truth. But it is in the farewell discourse (chs. 13-17) that we can truly marvel at the mystery of how God’s presence—Father, Son and Spirit-Paraclete—wants to come and dwell with believers as believers learn to abide (“remain”) in Jesus by the Spirit. Let’s take a closer look.
Jesus says, “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you” (John 15:4). This follows Jesus’ rich and intimate description of his going away “to prepare a place for you” (14:2), the “Father’s house and its many rooms (mene)” (14:2), and how the Father, Jesus and the Paraclete are to “abide” with Jesus (v. 10) and with the believer (vv. 17, 23, 25).
While many have taken these words (“in my Father’s house there are many dwellings”) as a description of a future “heavenly” abode, Mary Coloe makes a case that Jesus refers here to “a series of interpersonal relationships made possible because of the indwelling of the Father, Jesus and the Paraclete with the believer.” She argues,
Against this “heavenly” dwelling place, it must be noted that the subject of the verb meno (“dwell”), throughout chapter 14, is not the believer but God. The action therefore is not the believers coming to dwell in God’s heavenly abode, but the Father, the Paraclete and Jesus coming to dwell with the believers. It is a “descending” movement from the divine realm to the human, not an “ascending” movement from the human to the divine.”
The various threads of God’s presence in John come together to give us a fresh, Jewish, non-dualistic understanding of the way the Triune godhead—Father, Son and Spirit—indwells believers, and how Jesus prepares places/moments (“dwellings”) of restful union with God for weary believers amidst life’s struggles. Jesus’s “going away” here is not “to heaven” but to the cross and grave; and his return to the disciples is not his Second Coming but his imminent “Easter Return.” Raymond Brown summarizes:
Jesus is on his way to be reunited with the Father in glory (13:1) and to make it possible for others to be united to the Father—this is how he prepares the dwelling places. The variant reading for “in my Father’s house” is “with my Father”, and that is just the meaning that the phrase may have taken on as it was integrated into the overall Johannine theology of ch. 14. Jesus’ return after the resurrection would be for the purpose of taking the disciples into union with himself and with the Father, without any stress that the union is in heaven—his body is his Father’s house; and wherever the glorified Jesus is, there is the Father.
Jesus’ resurrected body is therefore the new temple—the Father’s House—and Christ returns (again and again) in the lives of believers, at those “thin places” where intimate spiritual communion with Christ results in the heavens being momentarily opened, where ordinary desert places are transformed into the House of God, where we hear “the hum of angels” ascending and descending as they run errands for God.
Jesus assures us of God’s ongoing presence by telling us he will not leave us as orphans (14:18) and will send the Paraclete to “help” and “be with” us forever (14:15). Thus, the Father, Son and Spirit-Paraclete dwell with believers as believers abide (“remain”) in Jesus by the Spirit.
In conclusion, Tozer would no doubt agree that if we have a mental image of a God dwelling far off in a distant place called Heaven light years from our earthly problems, then our soul will not move toward such a God but steadily away from any intimacy and meaningful relationship with such a god.
On the other hand, if we’ll move towards Jesus’ thoroughly Jewish understanding of God’s presence as seen in the Fourth Gospel, we’ll find ourselves concluding with Walter Brueggemann that “Earth is not left to its own resources and heaven is not a remote self-contained realm for the gods. Heaven has to do with earth. And earth finally may count on the resources of heaven.”
The disciples’ question to Jesus eventually comes back around to us: Where will we choose to dwell? Will we dwell in a split-level reality where Heaven is a distant shadowy hope for the hereafter? Or will we dwell in the Johannine reality where a dynamic, intimate union with Christ causes the veil to grow thin and heaven and earth open up to each other?
Like the angels ascending and descending on Jacob’s ladder, the one who “abides” or “dwells” in Christ by faith will experience the grace and peace of God ascending and descending in our lives on a regular basis. We’ll experience grace as Heaven’s promises descend into our valleys of despair and need. We’ll experience the “peace that surpasses understanding” as our faith leads our hearts in worshipful ascent to where we are seated in heavenly places and given a God’s perspective on things (Eph 2:6-7).
So, the question remains: Where thou dwelleth?